Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Take a Walk to 3 Million Years Ago at Chippokes State Park

This summer the boys in my Cub Scout rising Wolf dens worked on their geology belt loop and pin. Boys and rocks and volcanoes and fossils just seem to go together naturally, and I knew they'd enjoy working on the activities. We made pet rocks, brought in mineral samples from products around our homes, made working volcanoes and casted a full dinosaur skeleton in plaster. As predicted, it was a LOT of fun, but one of the best things we did was take a field trip to a nearby Virginia State Park to take a trip back in time. Chippokes Plantation State Park may be known for its working old-style plantation farm, but we were interested in something even older than the days when cotton grew in fields that were plowed by teams of horses.

Hugging the banks of the James River where the water runs wide as it approaches the Chesapeake Bay, Chippokes State Park is a lovely area with beautiful water views. And three million year old fossils. Yup, fossils right here in the middle of Virginia. And you don't even have to dig to see them.

We began our field trip by meeting the hunt leader in the parking lot near the old river house. The gentleman (forgive me for not getting his name!) is a retired William and Mary professor who vollunteers at the park for fun on the weekends. He showed his impressive collection of fossils, many of which were found right there in the park, and then proceeded to give me, the Leave No Trace trainer, quite a shock. He told us the fossils were strewn out everywhere underfoot along the river bank, and we were allowed to take as many as we wanted home with us. I was floored. The kids were excited. We had not come prepared with bags to take things home, but luckily many of the parents had something in their cars, so off the boys went on our hunt with bags in hand.

Strewn about is right. Millions of years ago, all of Virginia was under a deep sea. The fossils we could see everywhere were of the seashell type. Many looked similar to scallops and clams of today, but were generally bigger and, shall I say, somewhat more prehistoric looking. The river banks are slowly eroding, and the sand cliffs that are being formed show a geologic history of Virginia, including layers of fossils poking out of the soil. The river's narrow spits of beaches were coverred in these fossil shells that had been uncovered due to the errosion.

The boys (and I admit, adults too) had a ball running about the beach collecting every cool thing they could find. We were told that if we look carefully we might find a coveted black sharks tooth mixed in among the ancient shells. Try as I might though, I only managed to find a crooked back from bending over so long, no one went home with any sharks teeth that day.

Even though the boys had the blessing of the trail guide to take as many fossils as they wished, the parents and I tried to rein in the collecting. True, it appeared there would be an almost never ending supply of the shells as the banks continues to erode, but we adults felt that taking them from the river in buckets-full must somehow have an impact on the condition of the area for the future. Those shells probably become hiding spots for river creatures and break down into beach sand one day. I personally was torn by my excitement of briging home a three million year old object and my burdgeoning Leave No Trace ethics. In the end, the boys got to take home a few good fossils each, and I took a few to show those in the Dens that couldn't make the trip.

The boys show off some of their best finds.

The Cubs headed for home, happy as little clams (fossil clams?) and the family and I headed back towards the visitor's center for a picnic dinner and some play time on the park's two playgrounds. Yes, we had to try them both. We jotted down the park's Trail Quest code and enjoyed the beautiful view across the water, trying to pick out exactly where Yorktown might be. It was somewhere right across from Chippokes. There is even a nearby free ferry that takes riders over to the historic Yorktown/Jamestown area. The beauty of the park's location and the proximity to other area attractions made us agree that we'd have to come back for a weekend camping trip sometime.

Chippokes Plantation State Park is well worth a visit. Take a stroll along the river and touch something older than you can wrap your mind around. Take a fossil, but leave more for others to find and marvel at the thought of being deep under and ocean. Look closely, maybe you'll find that lucky sharks tooth. If you find two, can you send one to me? Its all I'm missing from my collection!

View of the James River from Chippokes State Park, VA.

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